On the eve of their match against Kenya on June 16, 1971 at Nairobi City Stadium, the players of West German Bundesliga side, Eintracht Frankfurt, spent the hours after dinner watching a film of their team’s 1960 European Cup final against Real Madrid.
Before 127,000 fans at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, the Spanish giants thrashed them 7-3. Polly Fernandes reported for Nation Sport: “Memories of that free-scoring encounter still lingered in the minds of the Eintracht players yesterday as they trounced Kenya 4-1 in a goal happy match at the Nairobi City Stadium.”
The man who walked to the back of his net that number of times to retrieve the ball and throw it back for the restart with the hope that each of those goals would be the last was Mahmoud Mohammed.
Eckhardt Krautzun, the German coach who would take Kenya to its first Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon in 1972, always scratched his head before deciding who between Mohammed and James Siang’a he would field.
In their day of days, tossing a coin would be a legitimate option. In the very first instalment of this column on October 2, 2010, I featured Mohammed’s greatest fan, Mahmoud Abbas, his successor at Harambee Stars. Kenya One, as people fondly called him, told me: “You never watched him. If you did, you would decide that he was Kenya’s greatest goalkeeper. He was tall and strong. He was disciplined and took his training very seriously.
“I was a schoolboy when I first saw him train and there and then I decided that one day I would be like him. If he was here and you asked him who Kenya’s best goalkeeper was, he would say me, Mahmoud Abbas. But I am telling you, as far as I am concerned, the best goalkeeper ever was Mahmoud Mohammed.”
Mohammed died this week. His 68 year-old heart, which had been ailing for a while and which needed specialized care in India, stopped forever. They buried him at Allidina Muslim Cemetery in his native Mombasa on Wednesday.
With his passing, the ever dwindling number of stars who did national duty for us in the years after independence keeps receding further and further from our sight and attention.
It was a beautiful cast.
The difference between then and now is that those were amateurs and today’s are professionals. Today, we talk about transfer fees, some of which I handily agree with former Fifa boss Joseph Blatter that they are “crazy”. For Mohammed’s generation, there was no money, only passion.
And was it in abundance! Pele once said: “The difference between Europeans and Latin Americans is that they play with their heads while we play with our hearts.” And I say: The difference between 1970s and 80s Kenya football and today’s Kenya football is that then, you felt like you were sipping a glass of cool sugar cane juice while today you fill as if you are trying to chew roast maize that was harvested last year.
On the eve of the match against Eintracht Frankfurt, Krautzun released his line-up. I know some people will blink and develop a lump in their throats when they read it. It will flood them with memories they won’t want to let go and fill them with an overwhelming nostalgia for the days of heart and unbounded possibilities when a new Kenya seemed to be in the centre of the sporting universe and some of the world’s best teams came to us and we took it for granted.
Here is that line-up: Mahmoud Mohammed, Joram Roy, Jonathan Niva, Ben Waga, Steve Yongo, Peter Ouma, Kadir Farah, Allan Thigo, Daniel Nicodemus, William “Chege” Ouma, John Nyawanga.
In his preview for Nation Sport, Polly Fernandes wrote a beautiful evaluation of the team which I quote at some length for the sake of Mohammed’s surviving team mates and fans. I know what it means to them:
“Kenya are expected to play a 4-3-3 system with Yongo as sweeper. Krautzun gave a hint of this when he played Yongo in that role during training. Peter Ouma, Kadir Farah and Allan Thigo are the link men. Nicodemus is tipped to fill in the berth left vacant after Livingstone Madegwa was axed from the final squad.
“Injured stars Mahmoud, Kadir and Francis Khiranga are off the danger list and are fit for selection but Joram Roy is still a problem. He is to undergo a fitness test before Krautzun declares him fit. If Roy cannot play, Daniel Anyanzwa is the next best man available. Although looking rather slower recently, he could play a useful role in the deep defence. Francis Khiranga is the other person Krautzun may consider.”
By the infallible design of our creator, sadness and happiness, like success and failure, are two sides of the same coin. They are so close that sometimes they even interlock. That is why even at funerals when we are crying, we also sometimes laugh.
Mohammed’s death reminded me of an incident at the Sports Desk in old Nation House which I want to share. In keeping with the dictates of this age of transparency and accountability, the friendly duels featuring Ingwe Den and K’Ogalo Corner are paraded in the open.
In my day, it was a verbal slugfest. Civil, but a slugfest all the same. What you could never do was write about it.
One day, we were banging away at our typewriters when Harry Were Silas, a journalist who could give his life so that AFC Leopards could live, grabbed our attention by remarking thoughtfully: “Kenya’s best goalkeepers all come from either the Coast, or Nyanza. Look, who has played for Kenya? James Siang’a, Mahmoud Mohammed, Mohammed Magogo, Dan Odhiambo and Mahmoud Abbas. Nobody else seems to last when tried.”
I don’t know what he was writing about that made him come to that conclusion but the facts seemed to support him. I remember somebody saying that what Harry had said was very interesting.
Ochieng Angela was a diehard K’Ogalo man, the kind that has no strength to lift a spoon and eat when their team loses, however hungry they are. He was also witty and if he were practicing today, his natural abode would be radio sports journalism, not print.
Harry did not know that he had delivered himself straight into Angela’s jaws. The Gor Mahia man put on a thoughtful face to mimic the one Harry was wearing. Then he started talking as if to strengthen Harry’s case and also to help him unravel the mystery. Looking directly into his adversary’s face, Angela said: “You know goalkeeping requires a lot of brain…”
That remark brought the house down. I don’t remember what else was said but I can still see Harry’s stricken face. The devastating insinuation hit home like a thunderbolt and he was speechless. If the two journalists were football clubs, full time score would have read something like: Ochieng Angela 5 - 0 Harry Were Silas.
Anyway, with the exception of Kenya Breweries – Tusker as it was called then - all the football clubs that Mahmoud Mohammed played for are gone. And Coast football, of which he was one of the most prominent exponents of, is moribund. Mwenge, Feisal, Champion, Western Stars and Lake Warriors, are all gone.
The best players from that region are either far below our radar valiantly enduring the ravages of age and illness or, like Mohammed now, are gone for eternity. Ali Sungura, Ali Kajo, Ahmed Breik, Kadir Farah and, of course, Kenya One himself haven’t much been part of our concern ever since they retired their shirts. And I have not heard these and many others being part of any newly elected governor’s agenda.
But Nation Sport which has catalogued their contributions ever since it came into being in 1960, doesn’t forget them. Their contribution to our culture is immense and generations of Kenyans have returned to their homes laughing or weeping because of what these sportsmen did on the pitch.
We cannot bemoan the impact globalization has had one our lives. In fact it is welcome. A global village is better than a little, xenophobic corner of the earth. What must be lamented is the wholesale transfer of allegiance by an entire country to European football leagues and the corresponding disinterest in our own. This has an effect.
Many years ago we talked about, and actually won, African cups. Today, that is a pipe dream. Of what use is to win the KPL title when you are guaranteed to go out in the preliminary rounds of the Caf Champions league?
Mahmoud Mohammed lived the last days of his life in difficulty. He was a widower. He had an ailing heart. He had no role to play in the game that he loved and gave all his productive years to.
His social circle had dwindled to family and a few friends. They are the ones who mobilised support for him when his heart condition turned critical. All told, his future was behind him, and sadly so.
He seemed to be the goalkeeper whose life inspired Brian Glanville’s haunting 1976 novel, The Dying of The Light.
It is about the challengers of the declining years and the valiant battle to push back the looming end. It is an epic battle, intensely personal, witnessed only by a cherished few:
And thou my father, there upon the height,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
The light has gone out on the life of Harambee Stars goalkeeper Mahmoud Mohammed and all we can now do is intone “Amen” when with his successor, Mahmoud Abbas says: “We thank God for his life.”